Weekly roundup: abortion fight hinges on high court
Gov. Ron DeSantis signs SB 300, the Heartbeat Protection Act, on April 13. Photo posted on governor's website.
By Ryan Dailey
News Service of Florida
April 14, 2023
TALLAHASSEE — A seismic shift in abortion rights could be coming in Florida after Gov. Ron DeSantis late Thursday signed a measure to prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
But whether the six-week limit goes forward will hinge on a case before the state Supreme Court.
The Republican-dominated House on Thursday voted 70-40 to give final approval to the bill (SB 300), which the Senate passed early this month and supporters called the “Heartbeat Protection Act.” DeSantis signed the bill several hours after it passed the House.
“We are proud to support life and family in the state of Florida,” DeSantis said in a prepared statement. “I applaud the Legislature for passing the Heartbeat Protection Act that expands pro-life protections and provides additional resources for young mothers and families.”
The case pending at the Supreme Court challenges a 15-week abortion limit that lawmakers and DeSantis approved last year. That case at least temporarily puts the six-week limit on hold.
Seven abortion clinics and a physician filed a lawsuit arguing the 15-week limit violates a privacy clause in the Florida Constitution that has protected abortion rights since a 1989 Supreme Court decision.
Republicans have long argued that the privacy clause was never intended to protect abortion rights and that the court should back away from legal precedents on the issue. If that happens, the six-week limit would be able to move forward. It remains unclear when the Supreme Court will rule on the issue.
The six-week restriction spurred a nearly all-day, often-emotional debate Thursday in the House.
“Enough is enough,” House Minority Leader Fentrice Driskell, D-Tampa, said. “It is time that we listen to women, that we trust women, that we trust families and allow them to make these most intimate decisions of home and heart, without Tallahassee politicians looking over their shoulders.”
Supporters of the bill said it would protect life and that fetal heartbeats can be detected at six weeks of pregnancy.
“Life begins at conception,” Rep. Kiyan Michael, R-Jacksonville, said. “Thank God that our mothers, all of us in this room, did not choose to end the life of us when we were in the womb. That is the most vulnerable place for babies, and they deserve to be protected.”
Opponents of the bill argued that it represented a de facto ban on abortion, because many women don’t know they are pregnant at six weeks.
“That decision should be yours, your families, your doctors and your faith, and not politicians,” Rep. Anna Eskamani, D-Orlando, said. “We (lawmakers) should have no say in this personal, private decision that impacts so many people in our state.”
Thursday’s vote was largely along party lines, though seven Republicans joined Democrats in opposing the bill.
LOWERING THE THRESHOLD
House members also on Thursday gave final approval to a bill that would do away with a requirement for unanimous jury recommendations before judges can impose death sentences.
The unanimity requirement was put in place by the Legislature in 2017, in response to decisions by the state Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.
But the bill approved this week (SB 450) emerged after Nikolas Cruz was sentenced to life in prison last year in the 2018 shooting deaths of 17 students and faculty members at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. A jury did not unanimously recommend the death penalty, requiring Cruz to be sentenced to life.
The House voted 80-30 to approve the bill, after the Senate passed it March 30. DeSantis is expected to sign the measure, which would allow death sentences to be imposed based on the recommendations of eight of 12 jurors. Judges would have discretion to sentence defendants to life in prison after receiving jury recommendations of death — but would also be required to explain in written orders their reasons for diverging from the recommendations.
House sponsor Berny Jacques, R-Seminole, argued that scrapping the unanimity requirement would stop an “activist juror” from preventing a death sentence. Jacques, a former prosecutor, described recommendations from eight of 12 jurors as a “supermajority.”
“That supermajority says clearly that it is reflective of the voice of our people,” Rep. Dean Black, R-Jacksonville, said.
But opponents warned that such a change would face a constitutional challenge and pointed to a history of Florida Death Row inmates being exonerated after their convictions. Rep. Ashley Gantt, D-Miami, said sentencing a defendant to death demands the “highest threshold.”
“We are talking about the state injecting chemicals into a person’s body to take their life,” Gantt said.
BACKLASH FOR BARNABY
A House Republican came under fire this week for comments that likened transgender people to “mutants” and “demons and imps.”
Rep. Webster Barnaby, R-Deltona, made the remarks Monday during debate on a bill (HB 1521) that would prevent transgender men and women from using bathrooms that don’t line up with their sex assigned at birth.
“We have people that live among us today on planet Earth that are happy to display themselves as if they were mutants from another planet,” Barnaby said before the House Commerce Committee approved the bill. “This is the planet Earth where God created men male and women female. I’m a proud Christian conservative Republican. I’m not on the fence, not on the fence.”
Barnaby’s comments came after transgender people testified against the bill. He called them “demons and imps who come and parade before us and pretend that you are part of this world.” Barnaby later apologized, but only for using the term “demons.”
Rep. Kristen Arrington, D-Kissimmee, addressed the transgender people at the meeting following Barnaby’s comments.
“Definitely, I’m still a little bit thrown off from the last comments here and just really want to let you all know that there are many here that understand and support you,” Arrington said.
STORY OF THE WEEK: Moving quickly on what supporters call the “Heartbeat Protection Act,” Gov. Ron DeSantis late Thursday signed a bill that would prevent abortions after six weeks of pregnancy.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK: “Death is irreversible. Death is different.” — Rep. Mike Gottlieb, D-Davie, on a measure (SB 450) that would eliminate a requirement that jurors unanimously agree on death sentences before such sentences can be imposed by judges.